Thanks VIX, But I Don’t Need Your ‘Fear Index’ to Tell Me People Are Nervous About the Economy

Why, oh why, did the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression have to hit during a presidential election year?

The ‘Fear Index’, also known as the VIX (or, officially, the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index) is a financial tool that measures market swings or volatility. The higher the VIX goes, the scarier the market looks, and the more panicky investors feel. Until very recently, few people had heard of the VIX and even fewer cared about it, but ever since the credit crunch took hold a few weeks back, the VIX has been a staple number on nightly cable news channels. On October 17, it hit 70.3, the highest fear rating ever recorded since the VIX was first introduced in 1993.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really need a VIX rating to convince me that people are scared. Insiders and investment specialists do have a practical use for an exact day-by-day volatility measurement. People like me, however, who write for economics blogs and read the financial sections of the major newspapers for sport, tend to get a general sense of the mood of the country simply by watching how many people in our own communities are completely melting down at any given moment.

Here’s a basic formula I’ve devised that any nonprofessional can use to measure financial fear:

1) Take the number of personal friends and family members who have lost at least 30% of their 401(k), and 2) divide that by the number of emotional outbursts about the economy that you have personally fallen victim to on the day you are measuring, then 3) multiply that final figure by the chocolate available in your household by 10:00 p.m. on any given weeknight, and 4) eat all the chocolate before someone else in your house gets to it.

Perform that equation and I guarantee you will discover that Americans are pretty scared right now.

Sadly, fear is a big stick that can be useful in political campaigns, especially with only days left until November 4th. Think you might need some help with that adjustable rate mortgage pretty darn quick? Socialist! What, do you think the government is supposed to wipe your chin and put you to bed! On the other hand, do you think you deserve the tax breaks you got under George W. Bush for finally, after 50 plus years, making it to a 50% income bracket? Fat cat! What are you, some kind of AIG executive or something? I’ll bet you eat homeless people for breakfast, you scoundrel!

The rhetoric surrounding the already significant economic mess is off the charts emotionally right now, and I submit it does not help the current situation one bit. What can we make of the term ’socialist’ in an environment in which the U.S. Treasury has just admitted it is considering nationalizing the banks? Which is more ’socialist’: a nationalized banking system, or a universal healthcare system? Don’t taxes by definition always redistribute wealth (unless we’re talking about a flat tax, which we aren’t)?

On a related note, if people who earn over $250,000 are actually about to be financially eviscerated by Barack Obama’s plan to rescind the Bush tax cuts, how is it that Cindy McCain paid just 20% of her 2007 income ($2 million of a total income of $10 million) but my household got stuck paying 27% on a microscopic fraction of that amount? OK, I know that question isn’t entirely logical, but it does beg a related question: Are taxes really the central issue here? Or do we just need access to much, much better accountants?

The economic political waters are about as muddy as they can get right now, and that’s useful because confusion and rhetoric throws people back on their own fears and emotional prejudices instead of their capacity for rational analysis of the issues at hand.

I’ll be frank: I have no clue what is going to happen next.

There, I said it.

You know, there are people in the world who spend years and years in Zen meditation practice just to someday, hopefully, somehow, train their minds to live completely in the present moment. Here in America, we’ve suddenly been given that gift free of charge by means of a financial meltdown. If we want, we can choose to simply admit that we are at a completely unrecognized moment in historical time, that no one is certain how this is all going shake out, and then we can just wing it, as it were.

That’s what will ultimately end up happening anyway.

In Zen meditation, when practitioners get caught up in projecting what might or might not happen and in thinking so fast it starts to make a soft whirring noise inside their own heads, the Zen master will often come up behind that practitioner and whap him or her upside the head with a big stick to snap that person out of it. Right now I see an excess of stick wielding Zen masters and a shortage of humble practitioners. If one more Zen master starts in on my own head, seriously, I’m going to…

Well, I’m going to do exactly what I’m currently doing: baking lots of chocolate things and eating them while I still can.

Here’s the scoop (as I understand it): We are either in for the hardest, longest recession in U.S. history or a mild downturn of one to two years followed by complete recovery. We are either about to become a socialist nation with requisite neo-WPA posters in every heavily-taxed home, or else we’re about to give the obscenely wealthy all the rest of our money and stuff, whatever little we have left, even our cats. These dueling outcomes will destroy us by fire or ice, but the important thing for us to understand is that, either way, we will indeed be destroyed.

No wonder people are scared!

I submit we may soon be looking at C) None of the above.

In the meantime, keep your stick to yourself, would you please?

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